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RESTAURANT REVIEW / THE HUNGRY HUNTER : The Prime Problem : Inconsistency with the featured fare is one of few anomalies in ambience or menu.


The Hungry Hunter has it down like nobody else: the concept, service, space and delivery, all seamlessly joined in service to a theme. The theme, of course, is Elegantly Rustic Lodge Dining, with meat, meat, meat everywhere.

It is impossible to find a detail in this environment that has not been tailored to Hungry Hunter specification. From the vaulted, beamed interior space that surrounds an immense stone hearth to the framed bucolic prints adorning hunter green wallpaper, the ethos at every level is Adirondack-individual. Even the waiting staff avoids the standard rendition of "Happy Birthday" to celebratory diners; instead, a synchronous, syncopated ditty, in full harmony, is sung. This, for waiter's wages?

No. This, for the throngs who come here faithfully, knowing what to expect every time, and who like it that way, thank you. For as chain restaurants go, the Hungry Hunter is arguably without peer for overall organization, overall quality, overall value.

The honeymoon ends there, however. Food is always a restaurant's litmus test, and while much of it here is excellent, the Hunter's signature dish--prime rib--is less than memorable, even troublesome. But more on that in a moment.

Start out with an appetizer of spicy shrimp ($3.95), a New Orleans-faithful rendition of medium shrimp, properly flash-sauteed for plumpness and sauced in a bracing Cajun liquid, amber and fiery from toasted spices. Or try the crab cakes ($4.25), in which sweet snow crab meat is joined with yellow and green peppers, mustard, cream, and wine; while the cakes suffer slightly from breading and deep frying, they're amply filled and quite satisfying.

But avoid the crab-stuffed mushrooms ($4.95), which arrive awash in a bland buttery liquid that is hardly offset by bland mushroom-crab stuffing or redeemed by a pointless cheese topping.

Part of the Hunter's success formula is in serving soup and salad with every meal (included in the entree price). On one night, the cream of celery soup was a ponderous, viscous, flavorless brew; on yet another, the tomato-vegetable soup was a terrifically herbaceous broth, laden with chunks of peeled tomato and potato. Ceremony is attached to the serving of salad, which comes from the waiter's Lazy Susan of 10 toppings of the usual salad bar variety; it's all fresh and pleasant enough, if unexceptional.

Now for the lodge fare. Hanging from the exterior roof peak of the Hunter is a banner visible to all driving south on the 101: "BEST PRIME RIB IN TOWN."

Alas, it's not, though I couldn't pretend to tell you whose is. Indeed, this prime rib is downright pesky. It comes in three cuts: petite ($13.95), standard ($15.95), house ($17.95).

On one visit, the standard cut, ordered medium rare (described on the menu as "red, warm center"), arrived medium (described as having "pink center"). More disappointing, though, was the texture: extra firm, pushing the limits of tenderness toward tough and stringy. Flavor was lacking, except at the very outer edges, heavily salted and herbed in the roasting. And strangest of all was the meat's inability to retain juice, ameliorated only by tedious rehydration (dipping pieces of it into a standard-issue "au jus" tub).

On a separate visit, the same portion was ordered the same way. The result? The meat arrived properly cooked, medium rare. But everything else remained the same.

Hungry Hunter should cast its spotlight elsewhere, to those things it does better than most, and there are plenty of them.

Filet mignon ($14.95) here is truly first-rate: fork-tender, sufficiently marbled with fat, seared outside and filled with juice and flavor within. One night, it was offered with the special treatment of Southwestern-style marinated grilled onions, a bold and successful pairing.

Whiskey peppercorn steak ($13.95 for the top sirloin version) bore the right hand on the grill, the right flavor in the meat, and just enough "pop" in the Americanized (i.e., whiskeyed) au poivre sauce.

Flame-broiled salmon ($15.95) is handled expertly. A large belly-cut portion arrived seared outside and rare inside. It was perfect plain, so deep was the flavor from grilling; a hot and sweet dill mustard sauce, thankfully served on the side, proved to be gelatinous and candy-like. And lemon-herbed chicken breast ($12.95), in which filets seasoned with olive oil, oregano, and white wine, couldn't have been better: sweet, tender, lightly charred, and lent edge by the bright, acidic marinade.

Rack of lamb ($15.95), however, was a disappointment. More of the prime rib problem: While it looked great and had a delightfully flavorful herb crust, it lacked flavor, juiciness, and the right texture.

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